A Retrospective Review of Daniel Johnston’s 1990

After performing a headlining spot at the 1990 SXSW Festival,  Daniel Johnston flew home from Austin, TX with his father piloting a twin engine plane.  In the middle of the flight Daniel had a severe manic episode and attacked his father, removing the keys from the ignition and throwing them out of the plane.  His father (a former military pilot) crash landed the plane and no one was hurt.  As Daniel was immediately committed to an institution, this album was unleashed on his cult of followers.

At this point in his career Daniel had finally made a name for himself after nearly a decade of making home made albums and had the opportunity of recording a few tracks in a real studio with a real producer.  Combining these tracks with a few live takes, we have 1990, Daniel’s most disturbing, frightening, and brilliant record he has ever released.

The album opens coldly with Daniel singing into the great unknown “I was living in a devil town, didn’t  know it was a devil town…Oh my Lord it really brings me down, about the devil town” with no backing instruments, just his fragile but assured voice alone and isolated.

The album continues with “Spirit World Rising” which continues themes of hell and conflict underlined by creepy and ominous chords.  While Daniel tells tales of traveling through Texas and meeting the devil, he describes yet another evil place he wants to escape, ironically followed later by the tender and positive ballad “Lord Give Me Hope” where Daniel begs for guidance and forgiveness of his sins.

While the studio tracks on this album capture a certain darkness that is unprecedented in Daniel’s work, the live tracks are even somehow more jarring.  With Daniel’s feet planted firmly in the physical world with us, his mind is in another dimension as he howls through “Don’t Play Cards With Satan” before an intimate audience.  Painting a nightmare straight out of the darkest depths of his imagination, Daniel frantically pounds mangled chords on his detuned acoustic guitar and moans “I thought I saw a bluebird sitting on a post, a shiver down my spine, I thought it was the holy Ghost”.  As Daniel madly screams into the abyss at the song’s end, you can’t help but wonder how Daniel survived this tumultuous era in his life.

Daniel also serenades a tiny crowd with “Funeral Home” which has the playfulness of a children’s song with undertones from The Excorcist.  While Daniel strums away the crowd tentatively joins in on the sing-along of “got me a coffin shiny and black, going to the funeral and I’m never coming back” to Daniel’s delight.

Taking a break from the hellfire and brimstone, Daniel joyfully sings a cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” as if he was auditioning for American Idol with unflinching confidence.  An alternate version of “True Love Will Find You in the End” is also delightful, but not as endearing as the original version which appeared on Retired Boxer – but nontheless still ranks with “Yesterday” and “God Only Knows” in the canon of most touching pop songs ever written.

Also highlighting Daniel’s pop sensibilities is “Some Things Last a Long Time”, where Daniel draws upon his trademark theme of unrequited love singing “Your picture is still on my wall, the colors are bright, bright as ever…the things we did, I can’t forget” with hopeful and delicate piano notes repeated over and again.

The album winds down with Daniel leading a church congregation through the hymn “Softly and Tenderly”.  While this might be Daniel’s call for help seeking solace within the confines of community and Christianity, it could also be a poke of irony to contrast against the album’s grim imagery and desperation.

Aside from Elliott Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill, there may not be a more deeply personal and troubling album in recent memory.  As Daniel nearly breaks down into tears during “Careless Soul” , first time listeners may have no idea how to process exactly what they are hearing.  In this sense, 1990 is more of a defining self portrait of Daniel’s illness than any traditional sense of an album.  While Daniel’s preoccupation with the devil may ward off some listeners, it is still Daniel’s penultimate album which captures him at his best singing about the dominate themes that rule his catalog.  Daniel Johnston has simply never been as captivating and enthralling than during this brief era.

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